What Is Quality Assurance?

Quality assurance systems differ by industry.
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Companies engage in the process of quality assurance (QA) as a means to ensure a high level of quality in production during the development of products or services.

Quality assurance is one facet of the larger discipline of quality management. Managing the quality of production involves many detailed steps of planning, fulfilling and monitoring activities. The quality assurance function is concerned with confirming that a firm’s quality requirements will be met.

This may seem similar to quality control, another facet of the management process. The "quality assurance" and "quality control" terms are often used interchangeably. Quality control, however, has its own specific function, and it pertains to the actual fulfillment of whatever quality requirements have been put in place.

Quality assurance encompasses the processes and procedures that systematically monitor different aspects of a service or facility. Through audits, it detects and corrects problems or variances that fall outside established standards or requirements.

Most businesses utilize some form of quality assurance in production, from manufacturers of consumer packaged goods to software development companies. Quality assurance might even be represented by distinct departments or divisions that focus solely on these issues.

Purposes of Quality Assurance

A business can build a positive reputation for reliability and consistency when it ensures a level of consistent quality in its products or services. This bolsters consumer trust and confidence in the business and helps the business compete with others in the same market.

Developing a Need for Oversight

Early concepts of quality control can be traced back to the Middle Ages and the rise of guilds. A craftsman could access a network of connections with other craftsmen and suppliers by joining a guild organization. He could then benefit from the reputation of the guild based on standards of quality in the products produced by its members.

The Industrial Revolution brought about more specialization in labor as well as mechanization. Quality assurance evolved with quality assurance practices being established around specialized tasks performed by workers. With the introduction of mass production, the need to monitor the quality of components being produced by large numbers of workers created a role for quality inspectors.

Statistical quality control or statistical process control was developed during this period, utilizing statistical methods to help ensure quality. The modern concept of quality assurance was introduced during World War II when the inspection and testing of munitions became vital to war efforts.

Quality Approaches

Quality assurance methods focus on establishing good processes to produce products with the quality already built-in, rather than going through an unmonitored production process and trying to “inspect quality” to a product that’s already been finished.

The approach to quality assurance differs depending on the type of industry. For example, a hospital might implement QA methods to improve the quality of healthcare. This could include defining quality by understanding core activities in effective patient care, setting quality benchmarks, and measuring quality by designing surveys, performing audits and conducting supervision visits.

Another business, such as a nutritional supplement manufacturer, would have completely different methods to assure quality since its product parameters are completely different than healthcare. For example, the company would guide its processes based on guidelines for active pharmaceutical ingredients.

International Quality Assurance Standards

An international federation of organizations known as the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) was founded in 1947. ISO consists of standards organizations that represent over 100 countries. It maintains an effective quality assurance system for manufacturing and service industries.

ISO 9000 is a set of standards first published in 1987, designed to help organizations meet statutory and regulatory requirements for product quality as well as consumer needs.

ISO Certification

Manufacturers and businesses can become certified by fulfilling the requirements defined in ISO 9001. This offers independent confirmation of an organization's adherence to quality standards. More than one million organizations around the world are ISO 9001 certified.

The management of an organization develops goals for quality assurance in order to be certified. These are codified into policies and guidelines specific to its business and manufacturing processes, often with the assistance of a consultant. These guidelines are then implemented by the organization and the systems are assessed for compliance with ISO 9000 standards.

The results of the assessment identify any areas that fall outside of the standards and that the organization must address within a given time frame. The organization is certified after standards are met.